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Saturday Night at the Movies by Dennis Hartley review archive

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Hullabaloo


Sunday, October 12, 2003

 
Arroz con Idiota

Rice Fails to Repair Rifts, Officials Say
Cabinet Rivalries Complicate Her Role


This is a potent issue for the Democrats.

The problem is not just Condi Rice. In fact, it isn't really about her at all. It is about a president who doesn't know what's going on and who no one listens to or respects. His administration is awash in infighting and backstabbing and the result is, as the article says, a dysfunctional foreign policy that is incoherent and ineffectual.

The issue is leadership; the real deal, not the solid-gold dancer jumpsuit version. A puppet whose strings are being pulled in 5 different directions isn't a pretty picture. But, that's what's happening, and it's been clear that it's been happening for quite some time.



[...]

In Rice, "you've never really had a national security adviser who's ready to discipline the process, to drive decisions to conclusions and, once decisions are made, to enforce them," said one former senior NSC staff member. In particular, he said, "she will never discipline Don Rumsfeld" when he undercuts decisions that have been made. "Never any sanctions. Never any discipline. He never paid a price."

[...]

As the administration enters an election year, the situation has become worse, several officials said, because everyone understands that no one will be fired no matter how far they stray from policy.

These managerial questions have been especially acute on the administration's policy toward the three countries identified by Bush as the "axis of evil": Iraq, Iran and North Korea. In each case, officials said, the NSC has been unable to bridge gaps in ideology and establish a clear and consistent policy.

From the start, top administration officials have waged a bitter battle over policy toward North Korea. Powell has led a group seeking to engage with the secretive and isolated communist government; Rumsfeld and Cheney believe talk is useless and have sought to destabilize and ultimately topple the government. Neither side has gained the upper hand, resulting in a policy stalemate that has left allies and North Korea perplexed.

The two factions, convinced they had the backing of the president, have pursued contradictory policies, often scheming to undermine each other. Insiders said that Rice rarely kept on top of the intramural bickering, though she seemed to lean more toward the Rumsfeld/Cheney group, and at times recommended policies to the president that he later rejected.

The debate sharpened after North Korea acknowledged a year ago it has a secret nuclear program.

North Korea demanded talks with the United States, but the administration insisted that other nations be at the table. When China agreed in April to act as a host of the talks, some State Department officials quietly hatched a plan to have Powell give instructions directly to the head of the U.S. delegation, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, that would allow him to speak to the North Koreans.

When Kelly briefed members of the Rumsfeld/Cheney faction -- which opposed the talks -- they moved quickly to thwart him. Within four hours, State received instructions from Rice that specifically forbade Kelly from speaking directly to the North Koreans, officials said.

The North Koreans, stunned that they would not get a one-on-one meeting, refused to attend the planned second and third day of the meetings, held in Beijing, and the talks were generally viewed as a failure. To win a new round of talks, the administration reversed itself and agreed to bilateral discussions during a six-nation conference held in August.

Similarly, the administration has veered between talking to Iran on issues of mutual interest, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, and appearing to foster a revolt against the ruling clerics by street demonstrators. "Iran is an emblematic example of how this administration, when it is so deeply divided, just can't produce a coherent policy," said one NSC participant in interagency debates.

More than two years ago, the NSC began drafting a presidential directive on Iran that would officially set the policy. But the draft has gone through several competing versions and has yet to be approved by Bush's senior advisers. Rice has scheduled a number of "final" meetings to approve the draft, but consensus was never reached and the president never signed the document.

Thus, as the administration faces a showdown with Iran over its nuclear programs and needs its help in Iraq, administration officials can point only to a brief statement issued by the president in July 2002 as defining the administration's policy toward Iran.

"All too often what you've had in the last two years is diametrically opposed views between OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] and others, and then no decisions being made. A lot of stuff gets papered over," said a State Department veteran.

Rice's hands-off approach is most evident in the aftermath of the war with Iraq. Administration officials felt that the postwar effort in Afghanistan -- a diverse collection of nations doing assigned tasks -- had been inefficient and ineffectual. So the Pentagon was given the primary responsibility for rebuilding Iraq.

Yet, after former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and his armies vanished in early April, signs quickly emerged that the Bush administration had not completely prepared for the aftermath. The early relief and reconstruction effort, assigned by Bush to the Pentagon in January, stumbled over such basics as staffing, transportation and communications. U.S. authorities sent inconsistent messages about Iraq's political future and proved unable to provide a clear vision to Iraqis or Congress of what the Bush White House intended.

"The NSC is not performing its traditional role, as adjudicator between agencies," said a State Department official, who described "a very scattershot approach to staffing and management. You never knew quite what you were supposed to be doing and with whom."

A U.S. official who served in Iraq said the NSC failed to make decisions about Iraq's postwar reconstruction and governance until long after the war ended. Decisions that some agencies thought had been settled were unexpectedly reopened or reinterpreted by the Pentagon, he said.

Even members of Rice's staff expressed frustration. The NSC and State Department staffers were stunned to learn, for example, that the Pentagon, with the approval of the vice president, had flown controversial Iraqi exile leader Ahmed Chalabi into southern Iraq after Bush had opposed giving Chalabi special treatment.

Some of Powell's key lieutenants, who had gone along with the president's decision to give the Pentagon the principal postwar role, were frustrated first by the Defense Department's refusal to include them -- and then Rice's unwillingness to intercede.

"Everything went back to Washington, where it became tangled up in the bureaucratic food fights," said the official who served in Iraq. "Absolutely everything."


Yet, the president responsible for this is mess is still seen as a strong leader, despite his falling poll numbers on individual issues:

Thirteen months before the 2004 election, a solid majority of Americans say the country is seriously on the wrong track, a classic danger sign for incumbents, and only about half of Americans approve of Mr. Bush's overall job performance. That is roughly the same as when Mr. Bush took office after the razor-close 2000 election.

But more than 6 in 10 Americans still say the president has strong qualities of leadership, more than 5 in 10 say he has more honesty and integrity than most people in public life and a majority credit him with making the country safer from terrorist attack.


Something needs to be done about that because that's a very large part of what people are going to be voting for. And once the Republicans get through with whoever the Democratic candidate is he's going to be bloodied and damaged, no matter how perfect he starts out. The failures of this administration have to be laid directly at the feet of George W. Bush or he and his war chest will win.



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